Writing "faith-promoting fiction" can quickly get a writer pinned between the Rock of Ages and a hard place. Readers want their faith promoted — they like allegory, fables, parables and stories that end well.

Writers, for the most part, want to produce something original. But if they pull the focus too much onto themselves and their inventions, the whole enterprise begins to look like an exercise in self-indulgence.

I bring this up because on my recent commutes I've been listening to a mainstream Protestant novel called "The Shack." You may have seen it in bookstores and in ads. It's leaping off the shelves. The Canadian author, William Paul Young, has sounded a chord you seldom hear in Christian fiction. Call it the "quirky, heartfelt belief" chord.

If you buy the book or CD, however, hold onto your halo. It's not an easy ride.

In "The Shack," an Oregon father named Mackenzie Philips must deal with a crushing loss. It's an abduction case. And though details of the crime are barely sketched out, the grinding, debilitating emotions of the father are painted in stark hues. Mack emotionally retreats for several years to live like an emotional hermit. He asks questions.

Why are the heavens sealed?

Why did people have to find God in the pages of a book — the Bible — instead of getting instructions directly?

Why did the ancients get to receive revelations from God while he did not?

Then Mack is summoned by God and invited back to the scene of the tragedy. He goes into the woods by himself where a strange darkness enfolds him and leaves him feeling weak and overcome by forces beyond his control. Then, from nowhere, light and warmth fill the grove and his being.

That's when he meets the Godhead.

And it is not your father's deity. I won't give away too much, but simply say Jesus appears as a carpenter in a flannel shirt wearing a tool belt and the Holy Ghost is a young woman, an Asian gardener. As for God, wait and see. When he asks God why this offbeat vision feels like a psychotic breakdown, God replies: "I am who I am," but also, "I'm not who you think I am."

Then the lessons and lectures begin. Old patterns of thinking are undermined. New truths emerge. And soon Mack becomes a vessel of fresh insights about God.

If all of this sounds eerily familiar to LDS readers, much in "The Shack" owes its strength to other sources. Young's version of God, for instance, is pretty much a gloss on the God from the movie, "The Matrix."

Still, the strength of the novel is not in its characters and plot, but in the wrenching and honest way the author deals with unbearable suffering and, later, with redeeming love.

For anyone who has gone "through the looking glass" from the world to the world of the spirit, much of Mackenzie's shift into spirituality will ring true. The man's suffering is not easy to digest. It hurts. But when you're finished with the novel, you'll find it hard to look at religion the same way again.


E-mail: jerjohn@desnews.com